Neutrality and its discontent: thinking about Israel

The letter below is something written inspired by a request that came to me from a teenager. It is not really a direct response to the individual but rather prompted by the sentiment of the question asked.

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Dear Friend

I was told you were looking for some objective information about what is happening in Israel at the moment. That you wanted something ‘neutral’. I do not know if that is your word or how your thoughts were interpreted.

Truthfully the task of finding something ‘neutral’ is impossible.

There is an understanding of the region which we can derive from appreciating the development of the Abrahamic religions, the attachment to the land of Israel, the ancient history of the land of Israel and of Jerusalem over thousands of years. We should also learn from the Jewish connection to the land and the nature of Arab and specifically Palestinian identity and their connection to the land. We can derive an understanding of the region from global history – the nature of conflict, colonialism and the end of the Ottoman Empire. We can also gain understanding from the history of political thought, including the rise of nationalism (not simply right wing nationalism) – the development of the idea of the nation state and a people’s right to self-determination. We must not forget the modern history of the State of Israel. Nor should we ignore things like the Holocaust, the changing nature of Western political power, international law and so on.

But that does not add up to an answer to your request for me.

I am passionate about the pursuit of justice and peace, of equality for all and the upholding of human rights for everyone. I am also a Jew and feel deeply connected to the fate of my people. I am both a universalist and a particularist – such is the nature of 21st century identity. That means that when three Jewish teenagers are kidnapped and murdered just for being Jewish, I feel deep pain. Their murder reflects on who I am as a Jew too, because I am no different to them and were it my children in their shoes they would be no safer. But it also means when a Palestinian teenager is murdered in what appears to be a revenge attack I also feel deep pain. Jewish literature teaches the value of all life, not just Jewish life. And I am disgusted that an attack of that sort could be provoked and carried out by Jews. Life is both universal (values, ideas and experiences applying equally to all of humankind) and particular (as a Jew there are things I share with other Jews and their families).

But this conflict is also one which has existentialist importance. I cannot be ‘neutral’ when there is a desire for the extinction of both my people and their presence in the State of Israel. I also cannot be neutral when the genuine desire for a state as an expression of self-determination is denied to the Palestinian people and the State of Israel continues to have too much power over the Palestinian people’s destiny.

How can I be neutral when it is my friends running for the bomb shelter or leaving their children behind as they are called up for reserve duty in the army? How can I be neutral when the loss of life is a trauma and tragedy inflicted on both Israelis and Palestinians – victims of the machinery of violence and warfare?

I cannot be neutral when indiscriminate rocket attacks only do not leave a trail of damage and harm that it is hoped they will because of the investment of Israel in protecting its citizens.

How can I be neutral when innocent Palestinians are being turned into human shields by a brutal regime under Hamas in Gaza that I really think is more interested in wiping Israel off the map than its people’s longing for self-determination? How can I be neutral when I know there are those voices of hatred and revenge that grow stronger amongst Jewish Israelis and Palestinians?

We cannot be neutral. Neutrality implies something impossible – something without values, as if there are just ‘objective’ facts when it comes to human life. It is so complicated, there is much nuance and huge difficulty reading the picture unfolding at the moment.

And yet, I continue to work for peace, for justice, for a resolution, for two states with secure borders. I remain committed to nurturing love, empathy and respect for my fellow human beings. But I understand that is a tough thing to do if you’re living in the midst of conflict not sitting in the comfort of a North West London home – as I am.

My advice to you: read, read again, listen, really listen to everyone, understand, go back and read some more. Do not accept simple answers to complicated problems. Recognise that there is no one ‘version’ or ‘narrative’ that will offer objective truth. Read all perspectives deliberately – too often we only read materials that confirm what we already think/believe. Challenge yourself to read differently, from the other side. In the words of a good friend and colleague, “As well as reading from different perspectives – we need to understand that the truth does not lie between the different perspectives – we are not hoping to reach a compromise between two different understandings of history, but rather we need to accept that opposing narratives are both part of a multi-voiced, self-negatory, complex truth”.

Finally, hold on to the values that will one day, I pray, triumph – of truth, of justice, of peace, and of love.

Yours Rabbi Neil Janes

EAPPI and the Church of England General Synod endorsement

I’m generally quite cautious about posting in a reactive way to matters about Israel, sitting here in London. It is often difficult to sift through the facts of specific situations and the opinion pieces are wide and varied on the internet – often it feels as if the truth is baffling. I am also hesitant because I’m conscious that sometimes all you can be left saying are a few simple value statements which do not make a wider contribution to the debate.

In reading about the recent vote at the General Synod of the Church of England about EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel), I felt equally uneasy about voicing a strident opinion without having reasonable opportunity to research for myself. Though I still feel somewhat uninformed because I have a nagging feeling that there’s a lot more than meets the eye when decisions such as this are made, I have read a couple of blog posts on the EAPPI website. These posts were sufficient to make me feel uneasy.

You see, I’m not an ‘Israel can never put a foot wrong’ type of person. I am passionate, frustrated and sorrowful about the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. I care deeply about the fate of the State of Israel and her future. And I am capable of holding in mind, at the same time, a desire for peace, justice and the implementation of a Two State solution – which meets the needs of both peoples’ rights of self-determination.

But you see when I read a blog post by an Ecumenical Accompanier who visits Yad Vashem and insinuates a banal and, dare I say, specious comparison between the fate of six million Jews and six million other people and the current situation experienced by Israelis and Palestinians, I feel worried and perturbed. When an Accompanier’s only reference for the display of striped camp clothing is a fictional novel, ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, I know they are probably woefully under-educated about the Jewish experience in the 20th Century and probably utterly ill equipped to comment on a highly complex political situation. I’m aware of the human rights issues, the demolition of homes, the expansion of settlements, and the impact of security measures on the lives of Palestinians. Clearly the settlements and the occupied territories will have to be included in any peace process, but to believe that they alone are the essential obstacle to peace is to display a remarkable deficiency in conceptual understanding of the situation. Moreover, to suggest that there is equivalence between the Nazi Holocaust, and the lessons that could be learnt, and the current situation is, I think, a misreading of what is happening today and a desecration of the memories of those who were murdered by the Nazi regime set on the extinction of an entire people.

The second blog article has been reposted on twitter a couple of times by Jeremy Newmark, CEO of the Jewish Leadership Council. I’m not sure I fully agree with how he reads anti-Semitism in the article ‘Land (f)or Peace’ – though read between the lines of the claim regarding the neglect of prophetic literature in Judaism and the way the same literature points towards Jesus in Christianity and you can understand Newmark’s point. However, I do think the post displays a chronic over-simplification of Jews and Judaism. I also think it plays too fast and loose with the rhetoric of ‘Chosenness’ which has historic resonances of anti-semitism. Moreover, I once had the misfortune of reading an anti-Semitic commentary on aspects of the Talmud and I’m afraid that the portrayal of a religious Jew in the blog post on the EAPPI website drifts into similar territory. The post lacks nuance and breadth of context and over-generalises the notion of religious Jews (Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox).

I only read a couple of articles and did not have time to comment at length. This is not intended to be an exhaustive review of the EAPPI or of all its blog postings, but I’m afraid these two posts are individually problematic and hint at the wider concerns raised by the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations, Lord Jonathan Sacks, and the Board of Deputies and Ruth Gledhill (also in the JC). If the General Synod wants to support peace in the Middle East I suspect there would be less controversial, probably more balanced, constructive and inclusive relationships that could be built.